Visas Part I: Dubai, Dubai

With the help of SOLA I was able to make it to Holland for christmas. The weather was bleak and rainy, the days incredibly short, but it was awesome. While quite the relaxing break I did spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get a new Afghan visa. The bothersome process began and ended in Dubai, which brought to mind one of my student’s favorite tunes, the Farsi song Dubai Dubai. She loves the thing so much she often asks to break the English language pledge to sing it. If you really must, here it is.

The trip started out a bit interesting. Upon arrival at Kabul airport’s first baggage screening I had the full attention of a gregarious, winky guard. I managed to politely shake him twice in the airport waiting area. As my flight neared I started into the airport and made it through all the checkpoints except one before the terminal. As I presented the last guard my passport who should show up again but Mr. Winky. He was hurt that I did not find him to escort me through security. Playing along so as not to offend him more I let him lead me to the cafe in the terminal as it was still too early to check in.

He called over a friend of his and told him to be at the check point before passport control to see off his friend (me). He had the cafe proprietor give the fellow a Red Bull. I found myself wondering at the fact that guards here could just take what they wanted. When I went to pay for my tea with a twenty (the smallest denomination I had) Mr. Winky forced my hand under the counter where he could more discretely commandeer the bill. I still had to pay for my tea so I had to take out another twenty. When I got my change I realized that I had paid for the other guard’s Red Bull, a 500 afs minutes card for Mr. Winky’s cell and somehow for a random, plain clothes dressed guy’s sandwich.

Nothing like a little extortion to start off the holidays! At least the tea was good. In fact I’d say the best cuppa I’ve had in Afghanistan. For thirty bucks I’d expect no less.

My mom’s cousin Nico and his family were excellent hosts. It was perfect to spend time with family in the picturesque, sleepy town of Monnickendam. The food was even better than the always delicious Dutch table coming off of 3 months eating oil drenched veggies. You have not had cheese or butter till you have tried Dutch jong cheese or their phenomenal butter. I also got to explore Utrecht for a day and spent Boxing Day watching the Premier League games at an English pub in Amsterdam called the Flying Dutchman.

I meant to get a visa on the way to Holland in the day I spent in Dubai. Unfortunately the Afghan Consulate was hard to find and their listed phone number went to some hotel! Oh we’ll, I figured it wouldn’t be to hard to get a visa in Holland.

The internet told me there was an Afghan Consulate in Amsterdam, close to where I was staying. Something seemed odd about the address though and sure enough the internet was wrong; no Consulate in Amsterdam.
Luckily The Hague, where the Embassy can be found, is a short train ride from Amsterdam. Unfortunately, their website was hacked the night I needed it so their phone number was hard to find. When I found one listed on another site no one answered.

Finally, I reached out to the Dutch Embassy in Kabul. With a little prodding from Leahy’s office the US Embassy did email me the same contact info I already found to be useless.  The Dutch Embassy back in Kabul though came through. They sent the number of an assistant to the Afghan Ambassador in Holland and soon I was talking to His Excellency.

The Afghan Ambassador informed me that their Embassy only provided visa services to Dutch citizens. An exception could be made though if he received a letter from someone of sufficient rank at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul. In the past SOLA had such a contact, but he has since gained a new position. Even with such a letter it seemed like I wouldn’t get a visa before my flight the night of the 26th (both the 25th and 26th are holidays in Holland). The only flight I could change to wouldn’t have me back to Kabul until Jan. 13th, leaving the school without a teacher for 2 weeks and making year end academic reports almost impossible.

So, back to Dubai. Predictably the Consulate was closed in Friday when I arrived. Less predictably, it was also closed Saturday. This meant Monday was the soonest I could leave and then only if the visa process went smoothly. This left me trying to find a last minute hotel in Dubai’s inflated hotel market…during the holidays…without a UAE cell phone. Finding a room for an exorbitant price the first night I used their wi fi to book a new room at a slightly less brutal price for the next two nights. Using my cracked iPod to do all this was  quite a pain.

Thankfully I am currently (or was when typing most of this entry) at the Afghan Consulate in Dubai typing away slowly on my iPod while my visa is processed. Fingers crossed I will get it at 3pm. It took my driver forever to find the place. I was late, but finally got a break when the kind official, once he understood that as a volunteer I do not need a work permit, took my application anyway. Another small detail that could have screwed me over is they weren’t too happy I paid in dollars instead of dirhams. Luckily I had 20 dirhams to give them to cover the currency exchange fee.

Inshallah, I will get back to Kabul tomorrow.  Dubai is possibly the most extravagant city in the world, but even in the fanciest hotels the details have been missed. Seeing the cracks you can tell how hurriedly it was built. In 1991 there was 1 high rise, now there are more than 900. 80% of the inhabitants are foreign. These are just some of the facts that suggest that, as my Dutch aunt Angelique says, “It’s not real.” This city has just appeared in recent decades, little more than a mirage in the desert. I am psyched to get back to Kabul, and not just because I can’t afford the food here in Dubai.

In the next two months, SOLA has the students all to itself; no public school in the winter. I am excited to really push them and see what their made of. I will also have the time to teach a few the guitar and read with some of the others. This time presents the best opportunity to really teach the girls and I am happy to report that at least three more volunteer teachers are on their way in the coming month or so.

I did  get my visa and flew back to Kabul with no further problems. Stepping off the plane there was a half inch of snow on the ground and the icy air smelled of winter, making me feel right at home. The students gave me a warm welcome and I was and still am very glad to be back. To my surprise, the next day the Dutch Ambassador visited us. He was supposed to come  the day I was flying back. I thought I had missed him, but apparently he changed the date of his visit so I could be present.  He’s quite the remarkable fellow.  He was in Jo Burg when Mandela was released, in the U.S. on 9/11, and now Afghanistan during this pivotal year.  Above all though he gave the girls such earnest and meaningful attention.

The best present I got this holiday season though was the 200 plus handwritten pages of science homework the students handed in while I was away.  It took two days straight to grade and was probably the hardest assignment I have ever imagined giving students anywhere, but they all exceeded my expectations! Each and every one.  I think its gonna be a good year.

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